World War II: Great war or greatest war?

(Via Matthew Yglesias)

I believe that Richard Cohen has produced one of the most asinine columns I’ve read in a while. This is not surprising because I remember this “liberal” columnist’s work circa 2002-2003 and his apologia for the Iraq War.

This time Richard Cohen seeks to the defend the indefensible (joke): that World War 2 (or as I always call it W W 2) was America’s “good war” and worth fighting. All of this is because Cohen saw that some pacifist novelist wrote a book about how World War 2 was  not really the GREATEST WAR EVER ™ and that we (ie. the United States) shouldn’t have fought it.

Now, I haven’t read Nicholson Baker’s book (and from reading Cohen’s piece he hasn’t either) and I don’t plan on it. But really, Cohen’s column isn’t about Baker’s book. Instead it is just another 800 addition to a familiar tripe to anyone who has ever watched The History Channel; W W 2 was the greatest war ever. Period.

Now I agree with Cohen in this, I believe it was right for the United States to get involved in the Second World War. Thinking about the condition of the world and Europe at that time it’s easy for this (non-pacifist)  say that. What with evils of Hitler, the Holocaust, etc. etc. But I don’t think that, despite how evil Nazi Germany was, that World War 2 was a “good war”.

It wasn’t a “good war”, it was simply a war. Horrible things happened; men, women, and children died. Blood and treasure was wasted in the destruction of human life. Horrors were committed by everyone. Just because the Nazi regime committed nearly unimaginable acts of destruction, does not excuse the behavior of the Allies.

Imagining World War 2 as our “good war” is immensely damaging to America’s historical memory and America’s politics. It prevents us from thinking critically about the war and our behavior before, during, and after it.

It allows people like Richard Cohen to make arguments like this:

No, they were not. But that, for the moment, is beside the point. A contemporary context for Baker’s book may not be World War II but the war in Iraq. The former, of course, is the good war, and the latter is the bad one, but in Baker’s view they undoubtedly are both wars that made things worse, not better. To make a further connection, countless neocons cited the pre-World War II Munich agreement — appeasement! — to suggest what would happen if Saddam Hussein and his regime were not confronted and brought down. Iraq was going to be yet another good war.

The parallels, strained though they may be, do not end there. Not only was the retro term “fascist” applied to Hussein, but it is now lathered on vast numbers of militant and anti-American Islamists: Islamofascists, they are called. It says something about the durability and plasticity of the term — fascismo — coined by Benito Mussolini in Italy in the early 20th century that it can be used to describe a goat herder in Afghanistan in the 21st.

The question, of course, is whether there is anything worth fighting for. Initially, I thought bringing down Saddam Hussein was a good cause. I was wrong — not about the cause, but about its practicality. I still feel that anytime we can stop someone from killing someone else, we ought to try. I think, too, that such attempts help establish the expectation that the wholesale abuse of human rights will not be tolerated.

Each generation since World War II has been seeking its own moral crusade, it’s own “good war” to fight, be it in Korea, Vietnam, or Iraq. American leaders, since World War 2,  have used this myth to help sell other more dubious wars than World War 2. The “good war” myth has conflated America’s moral standing with its military force. We all live in the shadow of that war, and its “greatest generation”.

This love affair we, as a nation, have with World War II needs to end. We need a critical discussion of what was good and what was bad about World War 2. What the United States did wrong as much as it what it did right. Only then can we really learn the lessons of our “good war”. Such a discussion is not about forgetting the horrors of our enemies in World War II or the horrors of the Holocaust.
This is a discussion that people like Richard Cohen just don’t seem interested in ever having. For example:

World War II was fought for several reasons but above all — and proudly — because the only way to stop the killing was to stop the killers.

I think Mr. Cohen needs to remember that the United States did not enter the war to end the Holocaust. Which is a tragedy.

Examining just why and how we entered the war would begin us down a path towards recovering a larger picture of the Second World War. But with a media filled with men and women like Richard Cohen, I don’t think such a thing is possible.

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One Comment on “World War II: Great war or greatest war?”

  1. […] World War II: Great war or greatest war? […]


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